I Share My Soul Because I Hope For Change: A Father’s Day Exploration Of Openness And Vulnerability
Awesome parents have awesome hesitations.
When I realized this post would come out on Father’s Day, my first thought was gratitude that my father always, always reads my writing. My mother, too. But, in some ways, my father’s case is even more amazing, because my topics rarely match his interests or preferences. I mean… they don’t match my mother’s either. But my writing themes are kind of my father’s antithesis. He’s a practical guy—focused on minimizing problems and maximizing opportunity. He doesn’t consider big issues like mysticism or consciousness after death; he simply completes the tasks right in front of him. Why philosophize when that will only divert your mind from the work that needs attention? I take some pride in realizing that my father does, occasionally, consider spiritual and philosophical issues, because my writing pushes them right into his face.
I didn’t realize how fabulous it is that my parents both read all my writing until recently; I figured most parents read their kids’ articles, books, and even dissertations, because of course they’re curious what their offspring are thinking, feeling, and putting out into the world. But lately I’ve met many writers whose mothers and fathers show little interest in their work. Their parents are good people, but they just don’t resonate with their children’s ideas, or they don’t have time, or… whatever. Whereas my parents resonate with anything I write, just because I wrote it.
Well, OK, they rarely resonate with anything I write on a level of true communion; I’m way too weird for them: too introspective, too much of an outlier, too open about my emotions and weaknesses. But I wrote it. Me. So of course they’re interested. This feels like a truism, an indisputable fact, and I am incredibly thankful. The world out there may be cold, rude, and impossibly hard to navigate, but I have two people I can always count on for intimate interest… if not agreement.
Agreement is a whole different issue from interest… and that’s a gorgeous thing. Let’s face it: my writing is not always so deep. Sometimes it’s on the deep side, but often I come across like a super-sensitive thirteen-year-old kid, hollering about my fears and insecurities. Oh, and I’m ultra-honest, admitting that certain people give me panic attacks and arouse in me the kind of indignation a child might feel when someone takes a bite out of his cupcake… not because they’re powerful on any kind of large scale, but because they, I don’t know, called me “Platypus” when I was in high school. My parents, protective souls that they are, worry that I could turn people off when I share this sort of thing.
I always ask my parents what they think of my articles. My father typically says something along the lines of “You sure do put yourself out there.” He once gave me the example of FDR’s paralysis and the advice he was given to downplay it as much as possible in public, so people would focus on his work, not his disability.
Of course, I’m no president; the whole point of my work is putting myself out there, so to speak, in writing and even in teaching. It’s not like I have some larger responsibility that’s losing other people’s attention when I share my weaknesses. Still, it’s certainly possible that someone could be turned off by at least one of the many personal issues I’ve shared, and leave me out of an opportunity. If a choice must be made between me and someone who didn’t write essays about having a bizarre learning disability, feeling outside the concept of gender, lacking interest in sex, not wanting a life partner, or running to the bathroom in shock because someone who gave her book only two stars on Goodreads approached and greeted her in a bookstore, will I lose out?
The good and the potential bad
Recently, a friend asked me how it feels to be so vulnerable in my public writing. He wasn’t criticizing—he likes the openness—but he feels uncomfortable about taking that approach in his own work. I have to say: something sure has changed since the days before I began shaping my woes, complaints, and insecurities into writing meant for mass consumption. But what, exactly, has been the effect on my life?
On the day a particularly revealing piece comes out, I feel alert and alive, but also nauseous: a kind of psychic nausea of nervous anticipation. I share the piece on Facebook, and I wait, wondering what will happen and who will see it: who might learn something new; who might feel attacked; who might lash out in anger because they vehemently disagree with something I said; who might unexpectedly reach out and support me in empathy, kindness, and a desire to understand.
So far, positive response has always outweighed the negative. For every troll who taunts and berates me, five fabulous souls will tell me how thrilled they are to have seen that particular slice of the world from my perspective.
Family members and friends who have known me for a while have rarely been surprised by anything I’ve shared. New friends and acquaintances have occasionally been shocked, but mostly in a good way. They’ve shown new sensitivity to certain issues. (They’d all be talking about dating; then someone would look at me and joke: “This probably doesn’t interest you.”) It gave me an excellent chance to tell them that it does interest me because they interest me… but I greatly appreciated the acknowledgement that I would not relate, despite the assumption most make that everyone wants sex in some way, and everyone wants a life partner and will take active steps to try to make that happen.
If only I weren’t so concerned with others’ impressions of me, this sharing thing would feel uniformly fantastic. I could walk outside after each new piece, knowing that more people understand a key facet of my life, and feel thrilled. And I do feel thrilled. But. There’s always a “but”… and the “but” here is substantial.
Professional ramifications are possible: that’s the most rational fear. At the moment, I passionately want my brand new manuscript to find an agent and a publisher—to get around, spark some new thought, and (hopefully, though I know how hard this is) bring me financial resources which could make a substantial difference in my life. Could something I’ve written be a turnoff?
I so badly want to succeed here and do not want to jeopardize my chances. I know people who feel proud when they finish a project, just because. They put a lot of work into it, and they’re proud of that work, and the resulting project, because they value their efforts on their own terms. That’s not me. What can I tell you; it is what it is. For me to feel proud, I need others’ approving nods and support. Rejection eats at my fundamental sense of vitality and comfort.
My feelings about writing spill over into my feelings about life, about myself, and about the people who interact with me. This doesn’t stop me from being open, but it creates all kinds of fear and resentment when people use my openness as ammunition and try to make me feel bad. It’s easy to make me feel bad. If that’s your goal and you know my vulnerabilities, you are all set. And, um, now all my Facebook friends who even glance at my articles have a sense for all kinds of issues.
When my last article came out (the one about gender identity and Orthodox Judaism, including my own experience of feeling beyond the standard gender binary), my father commented: “The good thing about this is that you’ll never have to see most of the people who read it.” I laughed and laughed… and he’s right. When you write an article and send it into the world, if you’re lucky and it gets around, most people who read it will fall far beyond your immediate social circle.
But what about the readers who are within my active physical (or even online) orbit? Am I risking mockery or worse from them? I’ve mentioned that most responses from people I know have been positive. But… there’s another “but,” of course. Ever since I’ve started publishing these articles, I’ve explicitly avoided certain people—one in particular: someone who, for some reason, seems to see verbal digs as an exhilarating sport.
I’ll call her Miranda, though that’s definitely not her name. I won’t say how I know her; it doesn’t much matter. What matters is this: she’s a genius at making me feel like a shlub, and she does it in seemingly subtle ways: you’d have to know something about me to taunt me this way, because the comments themselves are often not objectively terrible if you don’t know my context.
Here’s an example, from many years ago, long before I’d published any personal writing, when Miranda’s daughter and I were living in the same city. Miranda was complaining to me about how much her daughter hated using public transportation. It was so awful, wasted so much time, was so unbearably frustrating. Her daughter couldn’t wait to get her new car, so she could end all of that for good.
Well, OK, except Miranda knew very well that I don’t drive, that I’ve never felt comfortable doing it, and that I take public transportation all the time. She’d been told many times that my coordination and visual processing ability are just not up to driving. It would be like whining to a paraplegic that your daughter with a broken leg hates her wheelchair and just can’t wait to get rid of it.
My situation isn’t remotely as serious as a paraplegic’s, of course. I don’t even mind not driving most of the time… except when someone like Miranda chimes in.
Another example, also from long ago, which I found far worse: Someone must have told Miranda that I’d been having some writing-related problems. Maybe it was me, even; in the past, I tended to blather on about all kinds of things that got me into trouble. I was sitting in Miranda’s car with a few other people, and Miranda said: “Steffi, it looks like Clara [her daughter; not her real name] is the real writer around here. Her new job involves lots of writing.”
Clara herself protested, saying that her job involved logistical, explanatory writing, not the sort of thing that I was shooting for. Miranda looked in the rearview mirror and caught my eye. I was feeling horrible, and I saw Miranda’s face shine as her eyes caught mine. “Gotcha!” her whole being seemed to call out.
It was a typical scene. Miranda mentions something, catches my eye, and tries to see if she has hit a sensitive spot. Since I’m about the least suave character you can imagine, if she has caught a nerve, my expression will show it. And Miranda gleams, as if to broadcast through her whole bearing and mood: “One for Miranda. Steffi is losing.”
This dynamic usually emerges one way or another when Miranda sees me. It’s been happening since my childhood (she’s my parents’ generation). And here’s the clincher: since I’ve started publishing these pieces of intimate self-disclosure, I’ve avoided contact with Miranda. I’ve seen her once since then, and I acted very cool (to the extent possible for a fundamentally un-cool person), trying to make sure I wouldn’t sit too close to her, and avoiding conversation beyond the bare basics. When we were leaving, she told me she wished she could see more of me these days. I said nothing.
She has so much ammunition now; she’s like a chocolate lover at a fabulous fudge factory. Good old Miranda knows all my points of insecurity, whereas before, she had to make a stab and hope to inspire my wounded expression. It’s scary. I know, I know; how absurd… but I feel how I feel.
I even came up with a maneuver, which I will trot out each time I see her, if she tries for in-depth discussion with me. If she asks me about myself or makes a comment about my life, I will say: “Let’s play a game. We can’t talk about me at all. If you ask anything at all about me, or share your impressions of me, you will lose the game. So let’s talk about you….”
I should add that Miranda is not a fundamentally bad person. If I were truly in trouble, I think she’d be there for me. She’s highly analytical, and I think she probably does see these interactions as a kind of game. When she has evidence that certain issues are sore spots, she can go for the heart and find out—an act of strategy in a game of interpersonal chess.
I’ve simply become too sensitive to handle it. I don’t like interpersonal chess. I prefer warmth, caring, and building people up. That, to me, is the reason we’re here, on this earth, along with other, very different souls. We’re supposed to support each other, not tear each other down, even as part of a fascinating game.
Would you like to hear something beautiful? Miranda is the only real problem that’s come out of these pieces… and I haven’t even given her a chance to react to them, so I don’t know if her treatment of me would actually shift. That problem is really my own fear. When it comes to actual, face-to-face contact, I’ve been amazed at the positivity.
Last weekend, I enjoyed an all-night Shavuot event, filled with classes, snacks, and hanging out from night until the rising sun. Many people there were Orthodox Jews; studying all night is a hardcore activity, and Shavuot (which commemorates God’s gift of the Torah to the nation of Israel) is not a holiday most secular Jews acknowledge. Several people—all of them Orthodox Jews, many from conservative communities that practice strict gender segregation—specifically praised my recent article that called for openness and compassion towards gender outliers in the Orthodox world. The article didn’t pussyfoot around: I played with ideas like allowing transgender students to attend schools meant for the gender they identify with, and starting special schools for students who simply don’t fit into Orthodoxy’s prescribed gender categories.
I didn’t mention the essay: they brought it up to me, all smiles, telling me how much they enjoyed it. A few people also mentioned an article from a while back, about asexuality: not an obvious crowd pleaser in a group that places supreme value on marriage and reproduction. People told me they look out for my pieces because they enjoy them, and because I help them see issues in new ways. This is why I write… or at least it should be.
Dreams for the future (because I’m always dreaming)
You know what I wish? That I could go forth in the world with a smile and a confident stroll, happy that I’ve shared myself with whoever in the world might be interested. Even if they choose to jab, stab, or make fun. Even, for that matter, if the mockery is so subtle I’ll have to admit to a sore spot if I want to fight back. So what, right? I’m better than that. We all are: everyone who takes seriously our charge to help our fellow humans feel good, strong, and free.
You know what I really, really wish, because I think it would bring my mission in this world much closer to its ultimate fruition… and because I think, in some deep place, I have this ability, and so do most of you? I wish I could coax the Mirandas of the world to see what they’re doing, and encourage them to reconsider and move forward into something new.
I can’t do it in person; I get too nervous and lose my social footing. But I can try in written pieces, where I can express my thoughts in calm and peace, then send them out on a journey of sharing, and maybe even influence. This, I think, is the true beauty of opening up in writing: touching others in positive ways through the depth, pain, and naked feeling of our words on the page.
Yo, Mirandas, all of you: words are not small. I know you don’t mean major harm, but look what you can cause, even in people who might seem close to you. I fear you. I write an article and think of you, of how I dread our next encounter, because I’ve opened myself up, made myself raw, and created new avenues for attack. By why attack? Why not approach the people you know with openness, kindness, and love… even if they’re quirky, or they remind you of touchy issues from the past, or… whatever it is that makes you want to dig in and draw psychic blood. People are sensitive souls. You have power. Why use that power to create pain and terror, when the same effort could help a soul grow?
Mirandas of the world (and haven’t most of us been Miranda at one point or another): Next time you feel the urge to dig someone, please breathe in, breathe out, picture how your comments might affect a sensitive person (in other words, a feeling human) and look towards a better way. I don’t hate you, not at all. Right now, I reach out in love for the person I know you could be, if you squelched the urge to sting. I’m guessing you don’t realize that quick stings rarely end there: they leave a trail of lasting hurt and anger. I hope you don’t hate me for respecting you enough to call you out, for believing that if you knew the ulcerating power of quick words and gleaming expressions, you would work towards change.
***Image Credit: “Upward” by Llima Orosa on flickr